Brandon Cronenberg, “Infinity Pool” (2023)
Take away the extreme violence, the scenes of sleazy sex and the over-acting and what we end up with is a character study of an ordinary, every-day man who becomes psychologically and morally undone, and ends up being possessed by others, by following a hedonistic path in a society where he is apparently “free” to do whatever he likes and not have to suffer the consequences of his actions – because his clones are punished for them. Novelist James Foster (Alexander Skarsgård), in need of inspiration for his second novel, is on vacation at a resort in Li Tolqa, a country ruled by a repressive government, with his wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman). They meet another Western tourist, Gabi (Mia Goth) who invites them to spend time with her and her husband Alban Bauer (Jalil Lespert). They sneak out of the resort compound in defiance of Li Tolqa’s laws and spend a drunken day at a remote beach. They drive back to their hotel in the dark and James, taking a turn at the wheel, accidentally hits and kills a local man. Gabi insists they cannot call the police as the police, like the rest of Li Tolqa’s government and security institutions, are corrupt and will blackmail the tourists. The four return to their hotel.
Next day, James is arrested by the police and faces the death penalty at the hands of the dead victim’s first-born son according to the religion and the legal code of Li Tolqa. James is offered a way out: if he agrees to be cloned for a hefty fee, his clone will be killed in his stead. Having married into money, Gabi’s father being a wealthy publisher, James agrees to the deal. James undergoes the convoluted technological process of being cloned and then he and Em have to watch his clone being executed by the dead man’s young teenage son.
After this incident, James is increasingly drawn both by his own curiosity and desires and by Gabi’s enticement into Gabi and Alban’s circle of wealthy Western tourist friends who come to Li Tolqa every year to commit sadistic crimes on local people and then pay the authorities to have duplicates of themselves killed in their place. These tourists encourage James to participate in their crimes, killing local people, imbibing local hallucinogenic drugs and abusing the hotel staff. Through his participation, and becoming intoxicated with the drugs, and urged on and verbally abused by Gabi in turns, James fragments psychologically and morally. His eventual breakdown and trauma are horrifying to watch as he is forced, literally as well as figuratively, destroy a part of himself.
The film can be read as a satire of Western culture and Western elites in particular: wealthy tourists or others in positions of power or privilege travel to less developed or post-colonial nations where they abuse their hosts’ generosity and hospitality, rape the local women and girls, and / or kill local people, and then escape justice by being court-martialled (if they are on military assignments) or flee back to their home countries. It can also be read as a study of how individuals can be induced to participate in heinous crimes by being systematically abused and traumatised until their sense of who and what they are breaks down and they become tabulae rasae for new ideologies to be imprinted on them. James is subjected to repeated psychological shocks while committing crimes until he is forced to make an unenviable choice: resist his new programming and risk being killed, or fight for his life by submitting to his oppressors.
The details of Li Tolqa, its odd religion and code of laws, and how its repressive regime was able to develop an apparently antiquated technology to clone people, are not explained in the film: one has to take for granted that Li Tolqa, despite appearing to be a secretive and impoverished hermit police state that earns foreign exchange by allowing wealthy tourists to holiday at selected resort compounds, somehow obtained and developed a highly sophisticated (though very 1950s Cold War styled) technology. I suppose though that if North Korea can obtain the technology to develop nuclear power and defend itself with nuclear warheads despite being a poor country, then another poor and backward state like Li Tolqa can also obtain and develop advanced biotechnologies.
The acting varies from restrained and subtle (mostly on Skarsgård’s part early on) to exaggerated over-acting (on Mia Goth’s part as the ringleader of the circle of deranged tourists). Skarsgård does a good job as a struggling mediocre writer who is targeted early on by Gabi and her husband, who then proceed to work on James’s psychological weak points. While Goth’s role perhaps requires her to over-act, she does so bravely and with confidence. The other minor actors play competent support to both Skarsgård and Goth. The cinematography is often beautiful and has surreal elements in its portrayal of the cloning process and the orgiastic sex scenes (the latter being too long and not relevant to the film’s narrative). Close-up shots of the actors, especially of their eyes, can be unnerving and adds to the film’s rather cold, clinical style.
The film perhaps gets caught up in its own sensationalist violence and its themes are not fully explored but it does well to present the gradual decline and downfall of Western civilisation through its elites’ pursuit of materialistic hedonism in the form of a character study microcosm.